Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
So on Tuesday, an Ontario judge struck down three elements of the Criminal Code of Canada regarding prostitution in a landmark decision that sent shock waves through Canadian and international legal circles.
On Wednesday, Toronto’s editorial pages officially lost their shit.
Granted, this was a huge news story of genuine importance, so a little bit of shock was justified. But this wasn’t a particularly difficult story to report upon: prostitution laws greatly endanger women working in the sex trade, which is technically legal. (Canadian law criminalizes a lot of ways one can sell sex for money, but not the actual act of selling sex for money.) Since it’s a legal occupation, there’s no reasonable justification for laws which make it actively dangerous to pursue, hence those laws were struck down.
But Toronto’s papers felt the need to complicate things.
But even the Supreme Court should not have the last word on this issue. The social and public policy arguments for and against decriminalization are far too complex to be off-loaded onto the courts (which get relatively little public input or publicity). Doing so would deprive ordinary Canadians and their elected representatives of the right to be heard on an issue affecting people and neighbourhoods.
It is a judgment call too important for judges alone. Parliament is the appropriate forum for such a debate.
This was the Star’s take on the issue, as they opted for the safe, placid “no duh” editorial comment. We’re not sure how one manages to strongly suggest that what should happen now, in the wake of a court decision where segments of the Criminal Code have been found unconstitutional, is what has happened pretty much every other time a judge has struck down a criminal law in this country. Hell, moments like this are practically the only time Parliament moves quickly on anything. But thankfully, the Star showed up to lecture everybody in favour of the blatantly obvious.
Still, this is pretty basic stuff. Maybe we need a newspaper’s editorial board to get its dander up about the issue. How about the Globe and Mail?
“There has been a long-standing debate in this country and elsewhere about the subject of prostitution,” writes Madam Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court, but it is, apparently, over. Who is she to weigh all the potential harms at stake and decide matters, on either side? Who says she can do a better job than Parliament?
Canada should be prepared to liberalize its laws on prostitution, and to take into account the safety of the women (and some men) involved. But that is a job for elected legislators, not a judge.
Here we have the ever-popular process argument. The Globe is really, really angry that some activist judge subverted the rightful duty of Parliament who were going to get to overturning dangerously irresponsible prostitution laws any day now. Of course, the Globe is just rehashing the same argument that’s been used to condemn every civil rights decision that’s ever been made, which of course misses the entire point of civil rights jurisprudence because the rights of the minority shouldn’t be determined by the whims of the majority even when the former are prostitutes. But, hey, it’s only the editorial board of the most important newspaper in the country making arguments that wouldn’t be out of place in the mouth of an American in the south in the 1960s talking about states’ rights, what’s the big deal?
Still, this argument is insufficiently hackish. Can we maybe get one of Toronto’s regular pundits to weigh in on the topic in their traditional, classy way?
The whores around here don’t like competition from street hookers.
OK, that’s harsh, but compared to the $1-billion eHealth boondoggle, a straightforward sex-for-cash trade is refreshingly honest…
But all those politicians living off the avails of your taxes, off liquor taxes, off tobacco taxes, off the money raked in from casinos and lotteries are suddenly confronted by hookers who merely want to sell their own bodies to make a quick buck.
Oh, Christina Blizzard, you never fail to disappoint in the way that you always manage to disappoint. Those politicians! They sure like money!
In fairness, Blizzard does eventually get to talking about the actual implications of striking down the laws and how rub-n-tugs make a neighbourhood seedy, but then she jumps right back to how those greedy politicians will jump at the chance to license brothels so they can get more money from honest citizens, because Christina Blizzard has exactly three columns she writes over and over again, and this one is a combination of “politicians are bad” and “criminals are bad” with a little bit of “I’m standing up for the little guy.”
Now, in any normal tour of the press, Blizzard—or somebody else at the Toronto Sun—would write the worst media response of the day. But this is no normal day. This is a special day.
It’s always about that little four-letter word. Harm. The challenge will doubtless go up to the Supreme Court of Canada. And I am pretty sure I know what way it will go. We’ve already seen in a previous ruling how superficially the court deals with the subject of “harm” when it comes to our social fabric. After a seven-year legal battle for legitimacy by a Montreal sex club owner, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in December 2005, legalized most sex clubs for profit, the court affirming that community standards of decency—i.e. “harm” done to the community—were irrelevant beside the right of kinky risk-takers and voyeurs to find legitimate venues for their hobby.
That’s Barbara Kay writing for the Post. (The editorial board of which, incidentally, applauded the decision.) The title of Kay’s column has the word “harm” in mock-quotes. And yes, that’s her comparing prostitutes at risk of violence to a bunch of swingers in a private club while priggishly complaining about both of them at the same time.
Justices Michel Bastarache and Louis LeBel warned of more transgressive “rights”—polygamy, bestiality—waiting their turn for special pleading with now-justifiable hope.
Because when you’ve already compared prostitutes to swingers, why not compare them to polygamists or people who have sex with horses? It’s all the same! By which we mean Kay disapproves of them, of course. But why does she disapprove of them? Well, she’ll tell you.
The danger to prostitutes will continue, because the kind of men who frequent prostitutes and the kind of men who control them don’t have a lot of respect for them on the whole. Nor should they. Being a prostitute is a shameful, indecent activity, and any sex worker who demands respect as a matter of course is fooling herself. She is not respectable. Politically correct people will say she is, but she isn’t.
No, really, wow. The Post has printed any number of objectionable columns in the past, but this is really a new low. Look at those first two sentences: Kay actually manages to take the side of pimps. Reading this is just surreal because it’s so amazingly offensive you have to wonder how a piece that says, straight up, that street prostitutes are to blame for the ills visited upon them got published, even by the Post.
You can make any number of arguments that prostitution shouldn’t be out-and-out legalized because of the dangers it poses to women in the job. The other columns and editorials we’ve mentioned here have all done so to varying extents. But unlike Kay, they somehow managed to do it without coming across like a moralizing, self-righteous prude, complaining about how soon we’ll all have to join swingers clubs because the Supreme Court doesn’t remember what it was like in the good old days when good girls didn’t dress like dirty whores.
That’s because unlike Kay, they decided to see people with different sexual mores from their own—and, we must stress this bit, sexual mores that don’t hurt anybody else, which is why “harm” is such a big issue—as people rather than horrible deviants. They managed to do it; why can’t she?